Director, playwright, and actor Austin Pendleton, who has played roles in Broadway’s “Fiddler on the Roof” and “The Diary of Anne Frank” and the movies “A Beautiful Mind” and “Finding Nemo,” will direct Gaetano Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” at Boston University’s Tsai Performance Center on July 25, 27, and 29. Though he has directed more than 150 plays and musicals, this is only his second time directing an opera.
DON PASQUALE by by Donizetti
Q. When were you exposed to opera?
A. I must have been about 12. It’s the first one I remember. It was a production of “Don Giovanni.” The Metropolitan Opera was on tour, and they came to Cleveland, which is not far from where I lived. It wasn’t directed in a way that the plot was all that clear, but I remember just being overwhelmed by it.
Q. When did you first direct an opera?
A. There’s an opera company in New York called the Dicapo that’s in the basement of a church. There’s a coffee shop around the corner and one day the artistic director just started talking to me and saying, “Would you like to come direct an opera?” and I said, “Sure!” He asked me to direct “La Bohème.” It’s the most romantic music ever written. It’s just breathtaking. It happened Feb. 1, 1996, which was on the 100th anniversary of the first performance ever of “La Bohème.’’
Q. How did you come to direct “Don Pasquale”?
A. I got to know Susan Davenny Wyner, who’s the musical director here [at Boston University]. She started saying, “I’d really like to work with you in directing an opera.” I remembered how good the “La Bohème” experience had been, and then she proposed “Don Pasquale.”
Q. What’s it about?
A. An older man foolishly falls in love with a young girl without even meeting her. . . . There are heartbreaking passages in it, but it all ends up happily for everybody.
Q. You mostly direct plays and musicals. Is this opera challenging for you?
A. I direct it like I direct a play, but I have a musical director who is at least equal in importance to me as the conductor who helps to bring what I have in mind to [life]. They also point out to you when a staging idea that you have might make it harder to sing.
Q. What’s your directing style like?
A. I concentrate on how clearly I can tell the story to the audience through the behavior and movements of the characters. Often opera directors, even absolutely first-rate opera directors, simply tell the actors where to move, but they don’t get that specific about the behavior.
Q. How has the “Don Pasquale” cast responded to your acting-oriented directing?
A. They were not only cooperative about it, they were very happy about being directed like actors. The first couple of days we would just read through the libretto without the music. It was just them speaking words to each other. We did all the work exactly as if it were a play. Then we added the music in.
Q. Have you seen a lot of operas?
A. I suppose all my life I’ve had maybe 40 experiences in an opera house. I’ve never been a fanatic operagoer, and I don’t know why, because every time I go I love it!
Q. What do you enjoy more — directing an opera or a play?
A. It’s hard to compare it now because I’ve directed 100-and-some plays and two operas. If I had to pick my 20 favorites of all the shows I’ve done, the two operas would be two of those 20.
Q. Do you enjoy directing or acting more?
A. It’s always been about what jobs come along. In the last couple of years I’ve done a lot more directing than I have acting simply because you get to a certain age, and the parts you’re offered get kind of limited, and then some of those parts you don’t want to do.
Q. Like what?
A. People start offering you these characters commenting on life from an ancient vantage point, and I’m not ready to go there yet [laughs].
Q. How old are you?
A. I’m 72. I try to act one part a year — hopefully a part that’s very hard to learn because I want to keep that part of the brain exercised.
Q. Are you in anything now?
A. I’ve been working on “Oleanna.” It’s a two-character play by David Mamet, and like all of his plays, it’s fiendishly difficult to learn. It’s a brilliant play because you end up not knowing what to think, which is true in “Don Pasquale,” too.
Q. Is there anything else you’d like to share about opera or your experience directing?
A. I would feel presumptuous saying anything else at all about opera because I have a very small experience of it. . . . The only security I’ve felt in this or in “La Bohème” was I was working in each case with a musical director who was of the highest order. If it weren’t for them, I would not have been able to do either opera. I would have been lost. I blush that it will say directed by Austin Pendleton.
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